Parks Board approves Ackley Lake lease extension

By: 
Vicky McCray
Special to the News-Argus
People in a meeting room face a long table seating several other people.

The Montana Parks and Recreation Board members (from left) Doug Smith, Jeff Welch, Diane Conradi, Mary Sexton, and Chairman Tom Towe review public comments on Ackley Lake State Park Thursday. FWP Chief of Staff Paul Sihler sits at the right end of the table.

Photo by Vicky McCray

Public input may have been a factor in the State Parks board voting to extend the lease of Ackley Lake until December 2017.

Several area residents, including Judith Basin County Commissioners Cody McDonald and Jim Moore, former Hobson mayor Dale Longfellow, Judith Basin Chamber of Commerce President Kim Holzer and current District 15 Senator Brad Hamlett attended the meeting of the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board at First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park last Thursday. The Board had a number of items on their agenda, but the one of importance to Judith Basin and Fergus county attendees was the Ackley Lake State Park lease with DNRC.

Through the Montana State Parks and Recreation Strategic Plan, Ackley has been classified as a Class 4 park, giving it less significance, relevance and accessibility than other park classifications and labeling it for possible removal from park status.

The future of Ackley Lake State Park has received a great deal of public attention, including petitions, letters, emails and calls to State Park board members, as well as discussion at community meetings. Many in Central Montana have expressed their concerns for what is being called the “un-parking” of Ackley Lake.

After being presented with numerous petitions and hearing public comment from 11 people, the Board moved to approve a year-and-a-half lease with DNRC. Board member Mary Sexton made the motion with the addition that a working group be established in the interim to meet at least once within the next six months to discuss the current situation of Ackley and options for the future. The group is to include a minimum of a county commissioner, a chamber member or business owner, DNRC, an area landowner and someone from fisheries. Sexton required the group report to the Board within six months.

“If we see lots of progress being made by the end of 2017 but the final solution is not in place yet,” Sexton said, “we can ask DNRC for yet another year’s extension.”

Montana Parks Administrator Chas Van Genderen made a commitment to the Board to do the outreach required to form the committee, hold the meeting(s) and report back to the Board.

“This has been our intention all along,” Van Genderen said.

 

Board chair suggests next steps

Board Chairman Tom Towe noted his pleasure for the enthusiasm shown for one of Montana’s state parks.

“It’s really, really encouraging,” Towe said, “and I think this is a great opportunity for you folks to get together and help us out. And that’s what we need, is help.”

He encouraged people to get together to form a Friends group to support Ackley Lake, noting how very important and very helpful they are.

Towe also made it clear that the Board’s passing a lease that ends in December 2017 does not mean everything has to be done by that time.

“If we need more time,” Towe said, “I’m sure we’ll get DNRC to give us another year’s lease and maybe another year after that.

“We want to do what’s right,” he added, “and we want to do what’s best for all of the people. One of the things that I want to make very clear: at least at this point my position is we do not want to abandon any recreational heritage site in the state of Montana that is under our jurisdiction.”

He explained the agency wants to reorganize and rework their system to promote the more significant state parks more effectively, but this plan does not mean they are going to abandon anything.

“And if we need to, we want to work with other people and other organizations – other state, federal and/or local agencies – to make sure today’s recreational opportunities are continued to better serve the people of Montana,” Towe said.

Board member Jeff Welch wondered about the Board’s being able to get something through the legislative session that would increase the vehicle registration and make the parks fee mandatory. Before the agenda item was complete, Welch encouraged more discussion on the possibility of Ackley Lake’s becoming a fishing access site.

 

Public Comments

Towe asked people to keep their comments as short as possible to allow everyone who wanted to speak the chance to have their say. He also asked they address the issue at hand: whether or not to enter into a year-and-a-half lease with DNRC while the agency determines what ultimately needs to be done with Ackley Lake.

Chuck Thomas, a member of the Ackley Lake Water Users Association shared the same comments he shared at the community meeting in Stanford on Monday, Aug. 15, but added an old adage: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Jim Homison, who serves on the Citizens Advisory Council for FWP Region 4, read a letter to the Board on behalf of 577 people who signed petitions. He asked the Board to renew the DNRC lease at least through 2020 to allow time for a fishing access proposal to develop.

Al Eggers, a resident of Lewistown, told the Board Central Montana is very underserved by state parks. He said it is foolish to discard the economic advantages of Ackley and added the Board’s policies are misdirected. He would like to see the Board re-examine their policies and the criteria used to classify Montana’s 55 state parks.

Mike Getman, who represents the Snowy Mountain Chapter of Trout Unlimited and the Big Spring Creek Watershed committee, told the Board he is also a member of the Citizens Advisory Council. He encouraged the Board to vote for the year-and-a-half lease. He finds it interesting that Parks is not working with fisheries and asked for help from the Board to initiate the conversation.

Cody McDonald, Judith Basin County Commissioner, told the Board the Commission definitely wants them to renew the lease with DNRC and added they would rather see a five or even 10-year lease. He added the county would like to work with the Board to make sure Ackley remains open. He noted his disappointment in the county’s never having been contacted about the possibility of partnerships.

Dale Longfellow, retired Hobson mayor, mentioned the economic value of Ackley Lake and stated his hope that the Board sign the lease.

Kim Holzer, Judith Basin Chamber of Commerce president, told the Board she thought there could have been better communication between the county and Montana Parks. She walked the Board through a letter she had written to Board members, the letter sharing information about Judith Basin County and Ackley Lake in general, statistics on Ackley Lake use and its value economically and the considerations the Chamber asked from the Board. At the end of the letter the Chamber asked the Board to renew the lease with DNRC for five years.

Sheila Dixson, a Geyser resident and employee of the Farm Service Agency in Stanford, presented the Board with a letter from Judith Basin Conservation District Administrator Teresa Wilhelms, who occasionally uses Ackley Lake for educational purposes, and a letter from a fifth grader who shares her use of Ackley with the Board. Saying the year-and-a-half lease is not enough time to get something else going if the Board decides to “kick [Ackley Lake] loose,” Dixson asked the Board to extend the lease for five years.

Nick Dixson, a resident of Geyser, said he fishes Ackley summer and winter and has spoken to people from all over Montana who have fished there also.

Mark Wichman, a resident of Hobson and also a member of the ALWUA, told the Board the traffic to Ackley passes by his house and they would be amazed. He asked them not to shut down the park but to extend the lease. He added the ALWUA does not have the resources or the knowledge to take over operation of Ackley Lake.

Senator Brad Hamlett, current state senator from District 15, said one of the most important things about the Ackley Lake issue is the lease is free. He thinks a longer lease, 5-10 years, is the way to go. It would give the communities a chance to come up with solutions. He added with the amount of use Ackley receives, removing it from the list of state parks would not be good for people’s perception of state parks.

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